It’s generally accepted that the romantic comedy went into decline at some point in the ‘90s and hasn’t quite been itself since its final heyday, with films like When Harry Met Sally and Working Girl. If the genre has any life left in it, its saviour has come in the shape of writer/director Judd Apatow, whose innovation was to scour away most of the “chick flick” conventions – sassy girlfriends, marginal male characters, loads of sentiment and a soundtrack full of power ballads and inspirational R&B tracks – and replace them with plausibly male characterizations and the sort of crude humour more associated with the Hangover films.
Which is a nice set up for a warning: There is nothing family friendly about a film like Trainwreck, Apatow’s latest rom com. Most of the people reading this will probably find something wildly offensive within five minutes of the opening scene, and at closely-spaced regular intervals thereafter. I am not recommending Trainwreck as a pleasant weekend rental for after the kids are out or if you’re tired of re-watching old Audrey Hepburn films. But I have to qualify this by pointing out that Trainwreck – like previous Apatow comedies such as Knocked Up, This is 40 and The 40-Year-Old Virgin – ultimately endorses basic family values that you’ll easily recognize well before the final credits roll.
The film was written by and stars Amy Schumer, a young comedian whose brutally gynocentric comedy has made her a TV and stand-up star in barely three years, and whose cultural role mostly boils down to being a more palatable version of Lena Dunham, an inexplicable celebrity since HBO and the critical establishment decided to make her show Girls a hit regardless of how few people watched it.
Schumer plays Amy, a woman on the far side of her twenties who lives in Manhattan and works at a men’s magazine – the sort of place that mixes profiles of athletes with porny photo spreads of young actresses and dating advice tailored to sociopaths. (That the magazine is mostly written and run by women is a pointed truth about the publishing industry today, and the subject for far more satire than Trainwreck has time to devote to the subject.)
Personally Amy is a mess – one of those young women whose idea of empowerment involves being as much like a negative male stereotype as possible. She’s promiscuous and, by the end of most days, either drunk or stoned, which naturally makes the promiscuity immensely easier. We learn in a prologue that this is mostly the result of her father, who taught his daughters when he left his wife that monogamy was impossible.
She’s also not very nice. In several scenes we see her being snotty, dismissive, and even rude to co-workers, friends and her family; one of those people who confuses thoughtless candour for “honesty.” We can see that she’s on her way to becoming her boss, a cynical, charmless Brit played by Tilda Swinton channelling Russell Brand.
The sponge for most of her passive aggression is her erstwhile boyfriend, a painfully earnest bodybuilder played by professional wrestler John Cena. As part of a running gag that actually cuts pretty deep as social commentary, Cena’s Steven is quite sensitive and in touch with his emotions, so when Amy’s callous behaviour finally goes too far for him, he speaks for us with a brutal judgment on her character. Cena actually steals the first half of the film, and when he walks off it’s hard to imagine how we’ll endure another hour or more of Amy.
But it’s not like there isn’t a precedent for annoying protagonists at the heart of romantic comedies; Claudette Colbert’s Ellie in It Happened One Night had to be softened up by Clark Gable, and for years I was unable to make it all the way through Bringing Up Baby, driven to nervous distraction by Katharine Hepburn’s aggressively eccentric Susan.
In both films, initially unlikeable female protagonists are balanced by more likeable and charming male love interests, a role taken on in Trainwreck by Bill Hader as Aaron, a sports doctor Amy is assigned to profile mostly because of her hostility to professional sports. We don’t know what he sees in her – it has to be said that Schumer has little of Colbert’s beauty or Hepburn’s charisma, which means that by the time she starts showing some hint of any quality that would make a catch like Aaron endure the stress and humiliation someone like Amy brings as baggage, Apatow’s rom com has become far more sympathetic to its embattled males than its implicitly feminist women.
Aaron has become friends with many of his clients, which include NBA stars like Amar’e Stoudemire and LeBron James. While Amy and her friends share gossip and numb recaps of their nights before, Aaron and LeBron have touchingly vulnerable talks about their feelings and emotional goals; this emotional role reversal is the best running joke in Trainwreck, and a very subversive countersroke to tropes like “rape culture,” “yes means yes,” Slutwalk and “one in five,” which have turned public discourse on men, women, dating and marriage into an awful caricature of male beastliness and helpless femininity.
“You’ve come a long way, baby,” only makes sense today if, by a long way, you mean a full-speed reversal into Victorian melodramatic archetypes. It’s not a cultural moment that can either last or evolve, but it’s surprising to see an antidote of sorts coming out of the sort of film where a tampon joke goes on far too long and the key emotional pivot for the protagonist happens during what’s essentially a statutory rape.